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The Independent Investor: Avian Flu Scrambles the Egg Business
By Bill Schmick On: 10:49PM / Thursday May 07, 2015

By now, most Americans are familiar with the avian flu but its impact on your pocketbook may not be as well known. Here is what we know so far.

Egg producers have been walloped. Nearly 6 percent of America's "layer" hens have been destroyed. That's a lot of chicken, given that last year there were 362 million of those birds in the U.S., which produced 100 billion eggs. What's that going to mean to supermarket shoppers?

Look for at least 15 cents increases in the cost per dozen eggs at the wholesale level, by the time they get to the retail consumer. We still do not know how bad the impact will be on turkey prices but we do know that, like eggs, the turkey population has also been pummeled. About 1.5 percent of the turkey population, which numbers 238 million birds, has been culled due to this flu. How much, if any, this devastation will impact your Thanksgiving dinner this year depends on how wide and deep this H5 strain of avian influenza will spread.

To date, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has confirmed 122 cases of the H5 strain that can kill a bird within 48 hours. Nearly 24 million chickens and turkeys from over 14 states have been affected since December. That's a lot more than the previous avian flu outbreak in the 1980s when 17 million birds died or were culled.

Scientists believe migratory waterfowl are spreading the disease as they trek northward in their seasonal migrations. So far no human cases of the strain have been discovered and the USDA does not believe that the flu has entered the food supply, or at least not yet. Unfortunately, the flu is still spreading. Iowa and Minnesota reported more cases this week, including two huge egg operations that combined produce an estimated 4 million hens.

The spreading disease is beginning to have an impact on industry. The first 233 layoffs occurred at Hormel Food's Jennie-O Turkey subsidiary, while some countries (China and Mexico) have already imposed bans on poultry imports. Those were "dark meat" markets where leg quarters are the predominant exports. With exports markets blocked, processors have been flooded with an excess of these poultry products and nowhere to sell them.

Broiler chickens, the largest slice of the $48 billion annual poultry market, have gone largely unscathed. These are chickens raised for meat. Given that this product is dedicated to human consumption, today's industrial bio-security systems are state-of-the-art. Farmers and corporations have learned their lessons and spent millions in construction in response to previous outbreaks of the flu and other diseases. Yet some scientists worry that the disease may be able to penetrate these defenses, if, say, a farm worker accidentally tracks in the disease on the bottom of his shoe or boot.

The USDA has been working on a vaccine that could protect our national poultry flocks from these bird flu strains while the Center for Disease control is working on a possible human vaccine at the same time, so far without success. In the meantime, this week the government approved an additional $330 million in emergency funding to help contain what has turned out to be the worst outbreak of avian flu in our history.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser representative with Berkshire Money Management. Bill’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquires to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.



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The Independent Investor: Does Another Trade Pact Make Sense?
By Bill Schmick On: 03:30PM / Thursday April 30, 2015

As Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the United States winds down, politicians in both houses of Congress need to decide whether the proposed Trans-Pacific, 12-nation trade pact makes economic sense. It does and we should jump on it.

Through the years I have been in favor of more trade, rather than less. At the same time, I recognize that trade agreements, by their nature, means that in every country some sectors win and some lose. If you can produce something better than I and at a lower price, why shouldn't I take advantage of that?

Yet, there is always vocal opposition from those who perceive their position will be threatened. Those who stand to gain usually keep a low profile (while behind the scenes lobbying furiously for passage). This pact is shaping up to be no different.

Most economists and trade experts believe that Japan stands to gain the most from this Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). For them (and us), there are two controversial sticking points. We want Japan to dismantle its long history of protecting domestic auto dealers from U.S. imports. In exchange, Japan would like America to remove our barriers to car and auto parts imports from their country.

Japanese negotiators argue that American auto manufacturers have simply failed to design cars that appeal to Japanese consumers. Smaller, eco-friendly vehicles sell well in Japan. American autos, they claim, pollute more and are too large for Japan's narrow streets and highways. American manufacturers' claim those are simply excuses with no real merit.

That may be true, however, European automakers do not appear to have the same issues. Fourteen European manufacturers, led by Germany's Volkswagen, scored a record number of new car registrations over the last two years. The Japan Automobile Import Association found that 66 percent of these foreign imports qualified for a Japanese tax reduction for eco-friendly cars, while not one American auto import qualified for the same tax break. In addition, the Europeans are expanding the number of sale outlets they maintain in Japan, while U.S. importers have reduced their number.

That may be so, but if we look at the overall numbers, European autos account for less than 5 percent of total car sales in Japan, while we languish at a low 0.03 percent market share. In comparison, Toyota alone commands a 14.6 percent market share in the U.S. Honda holds an 8.2 percent share, while Nissan accounts for 9.4 percent. Clearly, this trade relationship is wildly lop-sided and has been for decades.

Agriculture is another area where Japan needs to let down the barriers for its own good. The Japanese only generate about 44 percent of their daily caloric intake from domestic farming production. This is largely due to an antiquated system that prevents corporate agricultural development. The Japanese farming lobby is hell-bent on preserving the individual farmer, no matter what the cost to the consumer or the country.

Prime Minister Abe understands this (as has many of his predecessors). The difference is that he is doing something about it. He has been chipping away at these barriers in order to spur economic growth. A TPP deal would allow more American beef and pork imports into the country. That works for him. Facing competition from abroad, domestic farmers would hopefully respond to the challenge by embracing economies of scale and opening up this closed community to corporate expertise.  

The TPP could be a good deal for all involved. Protectionism is not the answer, in my opinion. That just allows inept and uneconomical practices to continue unimpeded. Predictably, some Democrats oppose the pact, fearing it will cost the country job losses in the auto sector. Republicans on the other hand, especially from rural farming states, are pushing the deal for obvious reasons. I find that trade deals like this are good for the consumer, whatever the country, even if, in the short-term, some workers could get hurt.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser representative with Berkshire Money Management. Bill’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquires to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.



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@theMarket: Buy on the News
By Bill Schmick On: 02:42PM / Saturday April 25, 2015

The worst of earnings season is behind us and it isn't nearly as bad as investors feared. Led by the tech sector, market averages are once again near their highs and appear to be on their way to even higher highs. Halleluiah.

If you recall that last week at this time, world markets looked to be at death's door and the recovery in five days has been encouraging. It is not only the U.S. market that has seen a strong recovery. The highly volatile Chinese market, after experiencing close to a 5 percent sell off in two days, rebounded nicely, erasing all losses and then some. The same can be said for Hong Kong and Japan. And now Taiwan is getting into the mix with more than a 3 percent gain in two days.

The S&P 500 Index tested its all-time intraday highs yesterday brushing 2,120, before falling back at the close. But it was NASDAQ that made history. The tech, biotech and social media index broke out of a 15-year trading range, blowing through its former high of 5,048 and ending the day at 5,056. That's not bad, given that overall company results are mired in the worst earnings season in recent memory.

Remember, however, that these earnings announcements are a scam. At this point almost 80 percent of company earnings results have "beaten" Wall Street estimates, which have been revised down so many times that even the worst of the worst results appear to at least "match" analyst's predictions.

Sifting through these results, what stands out to me are the consistent revenue misses that have been reported by so many multi-national companies. The strong dollar is to blame and company CEOs have said so. What's even more unsettling is that most managers expect this trend to continue into the second quarter of the year.

It is one of the reasons why I believe that U.S. markets, while grinding higher, will remain somewhat lackluster (compared to some overseas markets) through the summer. And lackluster is a relative term. Readers should not forget that our markets are still hitting new highs despite uncertainty over the dollar, earnings and checkered economic data.

In a convoluted twist of psychology, the rising oil price has also been good for the stock market. In a classic case of what's good for Wall Street is not good for Main Street, oil prices have been on a tear ever since they hit at low of $42 per barrel. (my target was $40 barrel, close but no cigar). The rising price alleviates concerns that the oil patch and the banks that lend to them may be facing serious financial difficulties.

As for overseas markets, the Greek Tragedy plays on in theatres, although half the seats our empty. American investors seem to be ignoring the daily "he said, she said" war of words between European finance ministers. I expect that both sides will wait until the eleventh hour, which is still a month away, (when Greece's money runs out of money again), before reaching an accommodation.

I said "accommodation" rather than solution because I am convinced that the EU will simply kick the can down the road once again. Until then, I expect European markets will continue to gain and lose (sometimes a percent or two a day) as the deadline draws near.

In the Far East, I am relieved to see that markets are consolidating a bit after a strong three days at the beginning of the week. That's encouraging. I would prefer to see more of the same, rather than these roller coaster periods of huge gains followed by 4-5 percent corrections, especially in China and Hong Kong.  

I expect the Japanese Nikkei, which recently broke out from strong resistance at the 20,000 level, will continue to climb. The fast track trade agreement between the U.S. and 12 Asian countries, including Japan, should provide impetus for further gains as will Prime Minister Abe's historic appearance before both houses of Congress this Wednesday. My advice is to keep the faith, stay invested and enjoy the ride.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser representative with Berkshire Money Management. Bill’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquires to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.



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The Independent Investor: Should You Manage That 401(k)?
By Bill Schmick On: 05:47PM / Thursday April 23, 2015

When the Federal government, together with Corporate America, offered the American worker 401(k) and 403(b) tax-deferred savings plans, as an alternative to pension plans, they forgot one thing. The vast majority of employees have no idea how to manage these plans.

Back in my Dad's day, managing American's retirement savings was the job of professional pension plan managers. The money was invested conservatively, with a long-term view, regardless of market conditions. Clearly, it was the tortoise approach to investing, but by the time he retired his nest egg had grown considerably.

Today, less than 3 percent of all workers are enrolled in traditional pensions. The demise of pensions has many causes. At one time, workers spent a life-time working at only one or two companies. Today employees hop-scotch from job to job, since there is little loyalty left on either side of the desk or production line. Pensions under those circumstances make little sense. The practice of under-funding pension liabilities by corporations certainly did not help. The Pension Protection Act in 2006 ended that gimmick and with it signed the death warrant for most pension plans in America.

Instead, employees today are allowed to contribute a certain amount of their pay, tax-deferred, to these government/company-sponsored savings plans. Some companies will match your contribution up to a certain percentage level and most offer workers a menu of investment choices.  From there, you are on your own.

Let's say you have been conscientious in contributing to your company's tax-deferred savings plan for 25 years and you are getting ready to retire. You call me and arrange a meeting to discuss your options. More often than not, the first thing I discover is that all of your money is invested in one or two bond funds or even worse, a money market fund.

"How long have you been invested in these funds," I ask.

"Since the beginning," the prospective client says, sheepishly.

"I didn't know what to do and I had no idea what any of the funds did, so I just stuck it into whatever came first on the list."

Don't laugh. I have encountered this situation in a variety of forms time and time again. It is not your fault. I have invested six years of education and 34 years of financial experience to get where I am. I suspect that you are every bit as good at your job as I am at mine. And you have probably spent a similar amount of time and effort remaining good at what you do. So why are you expected to also be good at investing your money - and in your spare time?

Let's face it, most workers do not have the time, education or inclination to acquire the knowledge necessary to make good investment choices over many years. What can you do?

You can read columns like this and hope enough sinks in to make the right choices. You can ask people like me, professional money managers, to take a look at your investment and suggest alternatives. I do this for many, many people at no charge. Another alternative to consider that could drastically increase your investment results would be to switch some or all of your money to a self-directed 401(k) or 403(b) plan.

There are two types of these plans. If you are self-employed, you can open a solo or one-participant 401(k) plan. This can be managed by a professional for a fee while you are still contributing to the plan. Normally, the expenses involved in managing the plan are cheaper than the costs and fees involved in a company 401(k), plus you will be receiving professional management advice.

The second type is a little-known investment option that some companies offer in their retirement plans called the self-directed brokerage account. These "Selfies" are part of your investment menu. They allow employees to take advantage of many more investment choices than are normally offered in a 401(k) menu. For individuals who have investment experience, the brokerage option offers a great opportunity to fine-tune an asset allocation strategy. But if you don't have that knowledge, you can hire an investment advisor to do it for you.

Better yet, you have the flexibility to farm out some of the money to a manager for a fee and keep some with your traditional 401(k) plan, if you so desire. This way you can get the professional financial advice you need now, while you are still contributing, rather than having to wait until you retire. As for fees, most company-sponsored, tax-deferred plans charge a yearly fee without providing advice. If you are going to pay a fee, you might as well pay it to someone who is going to manage it as well.

Not all companies offer this option. You should check with your human resources department and if they don't offer the option, suggest that maybe they should. Make sure you take the time to select the proper investment manager, one that has a "fiduciary responsibility" to his/her clients, unlike a broker, who simply is required to put you into a "suitable" investment. Make sure you understand the difference. If you don't, contact me and I'll explain it.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser representative with Berkshire Money Management. Bill’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquires to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.



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@theMarket: Right Back Into the Range
By Bill Schmick On: 01:39PM / Monday April 20, 2015

The first week of earnings season is behind us. The results were not nearly as bad as investors feared. Some averages, such as the Russell small and mid-cap indexes, actually made new highs. However, all the indexes fell back into a trading range by the close on Friday.

As I suggested in my last column, on average 75 percent of companies actually beat earnings estimates. This quarter seems to be following the same pattern, at least so far. The money center banks reported pretty good numbers and even the worst of them got the benefit of the doubt from investors.

The really big moves came from the overseas markets. China, which has been a red-hot market all year, finally stumbled. After the Shanghai market closed on Thursday night (Friday, China time), the mainland regulatory authorities tightened margin rules. They also warned millions of individual investors (who have been the main players behind the stock boom) that they should not continue to borrow money or sell property to buy stocks. Some of these neophyte investors have no idea of what they are doing and yet they are buying and selling sometimes five or six times a day.

After the warning, the futures markets in Chinese stocks immediately plummeted over 6 percent, setting off a chain reaction throughout overseas markets. Aiding and abetting these China troubles, the economic woes of Greece continues to bedevil Europe.

As deadlines approach for various Greek debt payments to the IMF and the ECB, investors are worried that Greece will fail to make the deadlines. And if that happens, will European markets be facing a sudden and violent sell-off? Skittish investors decided not to wait for the outcome and instead sold European stocks on Friday by at least one percent or more.  Germany was down almost 4 percent for the week.

In the meantime, this weekend the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meet in Washington, D.C. for their annual spring meeting. I expect a stream of new forecasts essentially reducing global growth to around 3 percent for the year. There may also be some commentary concerning the impact of a stronger dollar upon various economies.

At the same time, expect commentary from politicians this weekend on trade. On Thursday, the Senate agreed on the wording of a deal aimed at giving President Obama "fast track" authority to negotiate a wide-ranging trade deal with 12 countries in the Asia Pacific (excluding China). The new Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would go beyond the traditional trade deals that focus on cutting tariffs and quotas. In addition, it would hammer out new rules on intellectual property, services and competition between state-owned enterprises and private competitors.

Given that Japan is the largest economy in the proposed TPP after the U.S. (which also includes NAFTA members Mexico and Canada), a lot is riding on the passage of the deal for the Japanese. Prime Minster Shinzo Abe is hoping Congress and the White House can present him with a done deal by the time he visits America on April 26. If so, expect that market to rally in response.

As for the down draft in world markets on Friday, I'm not worried. Foreign markets needed a pull back, especially in Shanghai and Hong Kong, after a quarter of remarkable out performance. Problems in Greece have been triggering sell offs in European markets since 2011. Every one of them has been a buying opportunity. I don’t see this one as any different.

For those who missed putting some money to work overseas at the beginning of the year, this may be an opportunity to jump aboard. I strongly urge you to do so.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser representative with Berkshire Money Management. Bill’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquires to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.



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Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor representative and portfolio manager with Berkshire Money Management (BMM), managing over $200 million for investors in the Berkshires. Bill’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of BMM. None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Anyone seeking individualized investment advice should contact a qualified investment adviser. None of the information presented in this article is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. The reader should not assume that any strategies, or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold or held by BMM. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill’s insights.

 

 

 



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